During the recent Congressional gridlock regarding the federal budget, the word draconian has become a common epithet used to preface the words “budget cuts,” in the way the epithet “powerful” usually precedes “Ways and Means Committee.”
How appropriate is the use of draconian to describe budget cuts?
Asking the Pentagon to cut some of its $463 billion non-war related expenditures is not the same as cutting off a thief’s hand for stealing. Eliminating programs that are keeping people alive, on the other hand, might appropriately be called draconian.
Apart from budget cuts, draconian is often used in contexts in which official procedures are seen as unnecessarily cruel or tyrannical:
Over the past week, the unrest in the Middle East deepened, with growing protests in Bahrain and Libya, and more draconian measures by the countries’ leaders to quash the opposition.
A new report this week from Human Rights Watch peers into China’s Draconian and ineffective incarceration of people struggling with drug addiction.
We are not going to take the draconian police measures necessary to deport 11 million people.
Draconian new measure requires police to arrest anybody who can’t prove they are a US citizen.
Since 2005, a rather draconian law has been adopted to deal with offenders. Failure to pay a ticket results in the revocation of driving privileges in Quebec.
Somali women complain of draconian Sharia restrictions.
Draconian [drā-kō’nē-ən ] is an eponym, a word derived from a person’s name:
draconian (or draconic) of, pertaining to, or characteristic of Draco, archon at Athens in 621 B.C., or the severe code of laws said to have been established by him; rigorous, harsh, severe, cruel. –OED
Although draconian has come to mean “unreasonably harsh,” Draco’s written code in which punishments were spelled out was seen at the time as being more just than arbitrary punishments inflicted by the local authority figure.
According to legend, Draco’s code prescribed death for most offenses. Plutarch passed along this much-quoted anecdote:
It is said that Drakon himself, when asked why he had fixed the punishment of death for most offenses, answered that he considered these lesser crimes to deserve it, and he had no greater punishment for more important ones.
I say “according to legend” because I’ve read that in the only fragment of Draco’s code that survives, exile (not death) is the punishment for homicide.
Draco’s name could have something to do with the fact that his code of laws entered Greek memory as being really really cruel: Greek dracon means “dragon” or “serpent.”
Bottom line: draconian is a strong word that conveys disregard for the humane treatment of others. It’s wasted as a mere synonym for extreme.